View up the length of a large ballroom with highly-polished wooden floor, white walls and slightly domed ceiling.
The ballroom at the Howitt Building, Lenton is now a music venue known as 'the Garvey' © Historic England
The ballroom at the Howitt Building, Lenton is now a music venue known as 'the Garvey' © Historic England

Black History Month in the Midlands

From skate parks to factory life, we're celebrating Black History Month by asking educators, creatives and community leaders to name places and spaces in the Midlands that are meaningful to them personally or to Black heritage in the region.

Daniel Adesina: Custard Factory, Digbeth

At the heart of Birmingham's Digbeth conservation area is the Custard Factory complex. This is the site of the former Bird's Custard Factory, which relocated to Banbury in the 1960s.

The complex is a collection of former factory buildings fronted by the Grade II listed Devonshire House. In 1992 the buildings behind Devonshire House were restored and developed into offices and studios that attracted creative businesses, kick starting the regeneration of the area.

In response, independent bars, restaurants and retail have opened up to serve the area. It has remained an inspiration for photo and film shoots, and is the location chosen by Wednesbury-based photographer and producer Daniel Adesina as his favourite place in the Midlands.

Bird's eye view

"When it comes to a special area that means a lot to me it has to be the Custard Factory in Digbeth," says Adesina.

"As a creative, I feel this area is such a hub of expressiveness, creativity and, every time I go there, an endless source of locations and exploration. It's constantly changing and evolving in the art, new shops and events that keeps a constant positive and inspiring energy all around as you walk down the streets of the Custard Factory.

"I honestly cannot number how many times I have been to Digbeth to shoot and just to show [it to] friends that are new to visiting the area, as I feel everyone needs to experience the beauty of the Custard Factory at least once."

Marley Starskey Butler: Penn Island, Wolverhampton

When Wolverhampton's Penn Island round-a-bout first opened in 1966 it won a civic award for its design of flower beds, tree planting and water fountains. The island was created as a sunken walkway for pedestrians to navigate the ring road that encircles the city centre.

However, as with many subways, it fell foul of vandalism and crime and Wolverhampton City Council came up with the excellent idea of turning it into a BMX and skatepark.

It is here that artist and musician Marley Starskey Butler found a community of BMX riders that supported one another, united by the art of perfecting moves.

Starskey Butler, who was born in Leeds but raised in Wolverhampton, says Penn Island was a haven for him growing up and fired his creative ambitions.

"As a child many hours were spent at this skatepark with friends, hanging out, supporting each other. Falling, getting up, trying again, failing, getting up, trying again, achieving. Putting our money together to buy bottles of pop and tip tops on a hot day to go again," he recalls.

"The BMX bike was one of my instruments of expression at this time and looking back, super vital in my sense of self and community. Public, free-to-use skateparks are so, so vital in bringing people together, connected on a shared instrument. I know there continues to be kids now, like I, needing a place for escape, to develop a tribe, to have fun, to learn life lessons you don't even know you were learning until you look back. Thank you Penn Road Island skatepark."

Panya Banjoko: Raleigh Factory and Marcus Garvey Ballroom, Nottingham

The bicycle is often held up as one of the most democratic forms of transport, but in the case of the Raleigh Cycle Company, it became a symbol of civil rights. 

This is why Panya Banjoko, writer, PhD researcher and founder of the Nottingham Black Archive, suggested the Raleigh factory in Nottingham, where many members of the African Caribbean community worked.

Raleigh was one of a number of employers in Nottingham that operated racially discriminating employment practices, but was successfully challenged in 1959 by campaigner Oswald George Powe with the help of the first Premier of the newly independent Jamaica, Norman Manley – who ordered a boycott of Raleigh imports.

Nottingham Black Archive, as part of its oral history series, has recorded interviews with former factory workers, many from the Windrush generation. 

Dancing days

The workers would have at some point visited the interior of the company's headquarters the Grade II Howitt Building on Lenton Boulevard, thanks to the inclusion of an attic ballroom in the building.

The building was completed in 1931 and was in use up until it was sold to Nottingham City Council in the 1980s. It was designed by the notable Nottingham architect TC Howitt (1889 - 1968), for which he was awarded the RIBA bronze medal in 1933. 

The building now accommodates support facilities for Nottingham's African Caribbean community at the Marcus Garvey Centre, named after the celebrated Black Nationalism activist, journalist and poet who became Jamaica's first national hero.

Additionally, the building's ballroom, now the Marcus Garvey Ballroom or 'the Garvey', was re-opened in 1981 by the 'West Indian Cavaliers' as a music venue, a successful change of use which survives to the present day.